The Book of Magic

The Book of Magic by Alice Hoffman

Genre: magical realism

I read it as a(n): hardback

Length: 383 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

In this fourth and final novel in Hoffman’s Practical Magic series, readers see Kylie and Antonia Owens, the daughters of Sally Owens, as young women living their lives in ignorance of their family’s history as bloodline witches. When the entire extended family gathers for a funeral, Antonia and Kylie learn of their magical heritage. Antonia, the logic-driven med student, scoffs and blows it off. Kylie is intrigued, and becomes involved up to her neck when her boyfriend is hit by a car and hovers between life and death. 

Taking off to England with Faith Owens’s dark grimoire in hand, Kylie is determined to break the curse that has followed her family for generations. Hot on her heels is her mother Sally, her aunt Gillian, and other family and friends met along the way. They learn what is important and just how much they are willing to sacrifice for those they love.

This was a great end to the Practical Magic series. I will miss reading more about the Owens women, but am grateful that I have the four books in the series to revisit when I feel the need for a fix of Tipsy Chocolate Cake and witchery. I also found recipes for both the chocolate cake AND the black soap that both sound honestly nice, so I’m going to make those one of these days and have myself a proper day of witchiness. 

It was nice to spend time with Kylie and Antonia and get to know them more. As expected, both strong and independent women. But we spent as much time, too, with the aunts, Sally and Gillian, and their long-lost grandfather Vincent. Adding to the cast is Ian Wright, a professor of history and magic, and Tom Lockland, a distant relative, each man with agendas of their own.

For me, this book dragged just a little in the middle, which is why I gave it 4 stars and not 5 stars. I got a little bored with some of the things Kylie and Antonia (mostly Antonia) were doing and it felt a little long. But it didn’t last long and it picked up again and gave way to a fantastic journey across England, through history, and through the human heart. Highly recommended!

Favorite lines (possible spoilers!):

  • Some stories begin at the beginning and others begin at the end, but all the best stories begin in a library.
  • Curses are like knots, the more you struggle to be free, the tighter they become, whether they’re made of rope or spite or desperation.
  • But stories change, depending on who tells them, and stories are nothing if you don’t have someone to tell them to.
  • “If you can’t eat chocolate cake for breakfast, what’s the point of being alive?” Franny said.
  • There are some things you have only once in a lifetime, and then only if you’re lucky.
  • When Kylie and Antonia were growing up, their mother had told them if they were ever lost it was always best to find their way to a library.
  • “There are no witches,” Antonia said. “Only people who want to burn them.”
  • “Do you think I’m a fool” “No, I think you’re a witch.” “Then you’re not so stupid after all.”
  • “If it isn’t written down, it will likely be forgotten,” Isabelle had told her. That was why women had been illiterate for so long; reading and writing gave power, and power was what had been so often denied to women.
  • A woman with knowledge, one who could read and write, and who spoke her own mind had always been considered dangerous.
  • If a woman doesn’t write her own history, there are very few who will.
  • It never hurt to have some assistance from a sister, and this was a simple spell that had been used by women since the beginning of time, with words that resembled the wild clacking of birds when they were spoken aloud.
  • What a life she had, most of it unexpected. She would not have it any other way, not even the losses. This life was hers and hers alone.
  • Love was inside every story. 
  • Her love was the fiercest part about her. 
  • The Book of the Raven was meant to go to the next woman who needed it. It might sit on the shelf for another three hundred year or it might be discovered the very next day, either way it would continue to live, for people often find the books they need.
  • Once, a long time ago, before we knew who we were, we thought we wanted to be like everyone else. How lucky to be exactly who we were. 
  • Women here in Massachusetts had been drowned and beaten and hanged, especially if they were found to have access to books other than the Bible…
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The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by VE Schwab

Genre: fantasy

I read it as a(n): hardback

Length: 444 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars

SPOILERS BELOW!!

Adeline “Addie” LaRue, a young woman in 1714 rural France, is being forced to marry. Only she does not want to marry, not this guy and not anyone else for now. In desperation, she begs and makes a deal with one of the Old Gods for more time. It helps to be specific when asking for things from genies or Old Gods because Addie is now immortal. The price of her immortality is that she can leave no mark upon the world. She can’t write, make art, not even say her own name. Everyone instantly forgets her as soon as she leaves their sight. Except one day, about 300 years later, one person doesn’t forget her. 

I think the premise of this novel was awesome. I’m sure everyone, at one point or another, has wondered what it would be like to live forever. Personally, I would hate it unless my daughter was immortal along with me. Kind of like heaven. Why the fuck would anyone want to go there and be stuck for all eternity with people you don’t like, or not to be able to help someone you love if you see them in trouble, or not to see loved ones ever again if they didn’t win a ticket to the cloud house? Pass, thanks.

Anyway, the premise was interesting and I think there are a ton of fascinating ways the novel could have gone. Unfortunately, nothing of the sort happened. 

Addie would have seen amazing things in her long life, yet she herself was not at all interesting. I thought she was boring AF. I’d forget her instantly, too. She had 300 years and all she did was travel to the same handful of places, learn a few all-Western languages, and bitch and moan about things. She could have visited the entire world, learned languages that weren’t some variation of a romance language, maybe even found a way to be an anonymous yet generous benefactor in some way to kids or a starving artist or something, despite her inability to leave a mark on the world. She could have chosen to remember some major historic events from an eyewitness POV. French Revolution? That was interesting. American Revolution? Yeah, Washington wasn’t as tall as people think. The Civil War and subsequent Jim Crow era, the Japanese surrender in 1945, the launch of the first Sputnik rockets, the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the politics of the Belgian Congo, the Rwandan Genocide. SO MANY things she could have seen and discussed. Instead, she wanders around stealing books and thinking incessantly about herself.

Henry was equally forgettable. He was a bland, boring man, though honest kudos to Schwab for trying to have a discussion about depression through his character. We need open and frank talks about mental health and any genuine attempt to do so is worthy of praise. But maybe make him interesting while also talking about depression. He just kind of wandered through the story and had no real purpose except to be the person who remembers Addie. 

Luc, the Old God sort of creature who Addie made her Faustian deal with, was physically sexy. But there the interest ended. We are supposed to believe he is some kind of god but he has a weird fetish with Addie? With making her suffer because he has nothing better to do? He didn’t even torment her to give readers any sort of character development. And then he and Addie end up together? After all that? OMG Stockholm Syndrome much? She wanted more time and not to have to be with anybody forever and then she ends up with Luc? Schwab sets up the plot for a sequel, but I was too bored and irritated by this to ever bother with a sequel. 

I have seen the writing described as beautiful, amazing, vivid, and so on. I wonder if I was reading the same book. Yes, there were some parts that were very nicely detailed and described. But there was also a LOT of repetition. If it was supposed to be vivid or whatever, I feel it missed the mark. If it was to subtly underscore the repetitive and boring nature of eternal life, then well done, mission accomplished. 

TL;DR version: Self-centered forgettable immortal woman thinks constantly about herself while stealing books, traveling to the same handful of places, learning a few Western-only languages, not witnessing many historical events or, apparently, meeting anyone who isn’t white until 2014. Wave off this one if you’re on the fence about reading it. So yeah, unpopular opinion, I guess. But I didn’t think this one was at all worth the hype.

The Witch’s Daughter

the witch's daughterThe Witch’s Daughter by Paula Brackston (Website | Twitter)

Genre: magical realism

Setting: Batchcombe, Wessex

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 403 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Bess Hawksmith is a young woman when the Great Plague of 1666 swept through her small village of Batchcombe. Naturally, the bereaved townsfolk need a scapegoat to blame for the losses they suffered. Bess’s mother, Anne, is a healer, so bingo! She must be a witch! The townsfolk round her up, along with another old woman who is a midwife, and hang them. The thing is, Anne really was a witch, and so is Bess. Bess flees and spends the next several centuries (she’s effectively immortal) running both from the memory of the horrific persecution as well as from the warlock who made a deal with the devil to give Bess her supernatural powers. Living a solitary life, Bess eventually finds a kindred spirit in young Tegan, a lonely teen who is drawn to Bess and her energy. But in taking Tegan under her wing, Bess inadvertently puts her in danger from Gideon, the man who has been hunting her throughout the years.

This one was, for me, SUPER slow to start. I almost quit. But then it picked up around chapter 4 or 5 and it was a very fast read from there out. I enjoyed this story a lot, though I don’t think it really had anything too unique about it. It was fairly predictable at the end, but the journey getting to the end was worth the read. I have a particular fondness for the Victorian Era, so I enjoyed that section the most. The bit from World War I was awful (an awful experience, not an awful read or awful writing). I don’t know much about that war, nor about the Battle of Passchendaele specifically, but it was an interesting, if sad and gory, part of the book. 

Overall, I think the characters were fairly well developed, but I’m not sure how much growth they really showed. Bess did mature and became a wise woman, but once she reached her maturity, she kind of stalled out. Gideon was consistently wicked but he was not a Bad Boy kind of character to me. I usually like those. Gideon was more like a cancerous presence to be cut out of a life rather than one who held any real attraction. Tegan was just a regular teen and didn’t really show anything other than that. Which is fine. They all worked for the story.

I think readers who enjoy Sarah Addison Allen or Alice Hoffman will enjoy this book. SAA and AH have more complex characters and richer storytelling, but I do think PB will get there eventually as well.

Magic Lessons

Magic LessonsMagic Lesson by Alice Hoffman (Website | Twitter | IG)

Genre: magical realism

Setting: New England Colonies

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 396 pp

Published by: S&S

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

At long last, the story of Maria Owens, the witch they couldn’t hang. Maria was abandoned as an infant in Essex County, England, where she was found and raised by the kind hearted Hannah Owens. Hannah taught Maria all she knew of healing and folk magic, but Maria, as it happens, was a witch by birthright. All Hannah taught to her was compounded by her latent magic talent. When a horrific tragedy occurs, Maria flees England for Curacao. There, she finds love and follows that to New England. And the rest, as they say, is history. Or is it magic?

I fucking love the Practical Magic series. I could probably conclude my review with that. But I’m also a sucker for a good back story, which this is. I always wanted to know what happened to Maria, how she got tricked by a man who left her, where she was from, and where she went after her failed hanging. I could talk about those things. I could talk about Maria’s history, her experiences, what she learned and taught. I could talk about the history of witch trials and women’s power. But I think it would be better for you to go read it and find out for yourself why this is such a great book. 

Favorite lines/ scenes/ characters (potential spoilers!):

  • This was true magic, the making and unmaking of the world with paper and ink (13). 
  • “Never be without thread,” she told the girl. “What is broken can also be mended” (55).
  • Tell a witch to go, and she’ll plant her feet on the ground and stay exactly where she is (164). [Yep. Don’t tell me what to do.]
  • Tell a witch to bind a wild creature and she will do the opposite (184). [I told you, don’t tell me what to do!]
  • Arnold, the horse who belongs to the peddler Jack Finney, is my favorite. He is a good boy.
  • These are the lessons to be learned. Drink chamomile tea to calm the spirit. Feed a cold and starve a fever. Read as many books as you can. Always choose courage. Never watch another woman burn. Know that love is the only answer (396).

Mexican Gothic

mexican gothicMexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Website, Twitter, IG)

Genre: Gothic fantasy

Setting: 1950s Mexico

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection

Length: 301 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Noemi Taboada is a young socialite in 1950s Mexico City. Her father is a wealthy merchant and the head of the family. As such, he is concerned about image and avoiding scandal. So, when his niece Catalina sends a letter to him that sounds completely unhinged, he wants to get to the bottom of that and fix whatever needs fixing before it hits the society pages in the newspaper. He sends Noemi to visit Catalina in her husband’s home manor of High Place in the remote Mexican countryside. Things go downhill from there. 

I really loved the first part of this novel. It was everything a proper Gothic novel should be – eerie, mysterious, dark, neglected, and so on. Very much felt like a Mexican Jane Eyre. I kind of lost the Gothic feel around 2/3 of the way through, when I think it felt more like a straight horror novel than Gothic. That said, I still really loved all of it, it just felt like it switched genre a little bit in the middle there. I wouldn’t even care that much except I’m not a huge fan of horror. 

I thought Noemi was a very believable character. She was sort of shallow and vain at first, but then we learn she wants to go to university to get a master’s degree in anthropology. She is something of a flirt and prefers the chase or courtship to being caught in her relationships, but she is self-aware enough to know it. She had hidden depths that reveal themselves nicely throughout the novel. She was a really well-developed character.

I didn’t think that so much about Catalina. I know that her flat personality was actually a part of the plot, but the glimpses we got from Noemi’s perspective about her were not really enough to give her much depth or make her into a fully-fleshed person in the story for me. She felt more like a prop than a person. 

The rest of the characters – Virgil, Francis, Florence, and Howard – were suitably developed for the roles they played in the novel. I don’t think they were super deep but they all did have certain nuances to their personalities and were fine for the purposes they served.

I especially loved how the house, High Place, was described. It was in the tradition of the best Gothic manor homes, like a cross between Thornfield Hall and the Haunted Mansion. Old, dusty, neglected, falling apart, mouldy, and of course it had a cemetery! Minus the mould, I would love to have a house like that. I’d put just enough money into it that it had proper amenities but keep the abandoned Gothic feel. 🙂 

Overall, I thought this was a fun read. Didn’t blow me away, but it was fun. Would certainly recommend.

Once Upon a River

Once Upon a RiverOnce Upon a River by Diane Setterfield (Website, Twitter)

Genre: magical realism/ historical fantasy

Setting: mid-late 1800s

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection / BOTM Club

Length: 464 pp

Published by: Atria Books (pub date)

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Once Upon a River is the tale of a young girl who drowned, and then didn’t. There is an inn that is known for its storytelling, which is where the drowned girl and her rescuer end up. Her story spreads from there and she becomes three different girls who have all gone missing. The lives of a photographer, a healer, a farmer, and a pub owner all become entwined because of their connections, real or otherwise, to the drowned girl.

I honestly don’t want to write an in-depth review of this book. I fucking LOVED it and don’t want to have to think too closely about it. It was a fairy tale wrapped in a mystery set in a historical fiction. I never wanted it to end, and when it did, I wanted to forget all about it so I could read it again for the first time. The writing was gorgeous – truly evocative of fairy tales – and the characters were well defined and complex, every one of them. The setting was ephemeral and had very much an otherworldly feel to it, which was perfect for the story. I had too many favorite lines and scenes, so I only put a couple below. Otherwise, I’d just be copying down the entire book. I can’t describe it, just go read it for yourself. You will not be sorry you did!

 

Favorite part/ lines (spoilers!):

  • ‘The Swan was a very ancient inn, perhaps the most ancient of them all. It had been constructed in three parts: one was old, one was very old, and one was older still’ (3). 
  • ‘She could lift barrels without help and had legs so sturdy, she never felt the need to sit down. It was rumored she even slept on her feet, but she had given birth to thirteen children, so clearly she must have lain down sometimes’ (5). 
  • The discussion about the word one ought to use to describe a person rowing very quickly up a river. Can’t be haring because hares don’t go in row boats. Can’t be ottering because that sounds worse than haring. It was a very serious discussion.
  • ‘There was a general hubbub of conversation between the windows as the story was discussed, its missing pieces identified, attempts made to fill them in…Fred began to feel left out of his own tale, sensed it slipping from his grasp and altering in ways he hadn’t anticipated; now it had slipped the leash and was anybody’s’ (46)
  • ‘They sat on the bank. It was better to tell such stories close to the river than in a drawing room. Words accumulate indoors, trapped by walls and ceilings. The weight of what has been said can lie heavily on what might yet be said and suffocate it. By the river the air carries the story on a journey: one sentence drifts away and makes room for the next’ (361).
  • ‘While the water lay unperturbed and indifferent all around, the women at the Swan were engaged on the human pursuits of dying and being born. On one side of the wall Helena struggled to deliver her baby into life. On the other side, Joe struggled to depart it. The little Margots got on with everything that needed to be done so that life could be begun and so that it could be ended’ (417).
  • ‘There must be more to stories than you think’ (431).
  • ‘And though eventually there came a day when the man himself was forgotten, his stories lived on’ (457). 
  • ‘How many photographs could a man take in a lifetime? A hundred thousand? About that. A hundred thousand slivers of life, ten or fifteen seconds long, captured by light on glass’ (458).
  • ‘And now, dear reader, the story is over. It is time for you to cross the bridge once more and return to the world you came from. This river, which is and is not the Thames, must continue flowing without you. You have haunted here long enough, and besides, you surely must have rivers of your own to attend to?’ (460).

Kindred

Kindred by Octavia Butler

Genre: let’s call it magical realism

Setting: 1976 and the antebellum South

I read it as a(n): kindle book

Source: my own collection

Length: 287 pp

Published by: Beacon Press (1 June 1979)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Dana is a modern young Black woman, married to a white man called Kevin, and they are both authors. They have recently purchased their first real home together and are in the middle of unpacking when Dana feels dizzy and falls to the ground. When the dizziness passes, she finds herself outside and hears a child yelling for help. Since Dana isn’t a dick, she rushes to help and ends up saving a young boy named Rufus from drowning. The boy’s father comes across them and, thinking Dana is trying to harm his son, aims a rifle at her. Dana is then transported back to her home, soaking wet and covered in mud from her rescue efforts. 

Over the next few weeks, Dana finds herself inexplicably called back to what she learns is the antebellum South, to a plantation with slaves. Somehow, anytime Rufus is in mortal danger, he pulls her back in time to him, completely unintentionally. Dana learns that Rufus is one of her ancestors and she has to keep saving him until he is able to father the child who is her direct ancestor. Each time Dana goes back, she stays longer and the trip is more dangerous for her. She eventually figures out that when she herself fears for her life, she is able to return to her own time, which is moving more slowly than the past. Dana spends hours, days, and months in the past and yet her own time period only moves forward by a few minutes or days even for her longest period spent in the past. Dana has to learn how to survive in a harsh past, retain Rufus’s trust enough that he doesn’t harm her himself just because he can, and keep her husband Kevin safe during her travels as well. 

This story was a difficult and yet un-put-downable read. Difficult because of the subject matter but a very fast and engaging read. Even though it was written in 1979, there was not actually much reference to technology so it didn’t feel dated. In fact, it could have been written this year and would have been hailed as a timely discussion on race relations and equality, given the ongoing protests surrounding police brutality towards Black people. It was a horrifying read as well because it explores topics such as slavery, which is to be expected from the book’s premise. What was worst, though, was Dana’s thoughts on how easy it can be to become accustomed to injustice. The discussion of racism was deep and explored some of the ways in which it has become institutionalized in America even today. Some scenes reminded me of part of Angie Thomas’s novel The Hate U Give where Starr and her brothers received “the talk” from their parents. Not the sex talk, but the talk about what to do and how to act if and when they are stopped by a police officer. The fact that such talks are considered a necessary part of parenting for so many people is heartbreaking, and Butler’s novel shows readers partly why that has come to be. 

Dana adapted fairly quickly to her new environment, not because she was somehow weak or didn’t resist hard enough, but because she had to adapt or die. Part of the discussion on how quickly Dana had to adapt to slavery conditions was also the sense of mutual obligation between many of the characters. They all tried to look out for each other and take everyone’s well being into consideration, even if it was sometimes to their own detriment. But parents, for example, would do whatever was necessary to spare their children and to keep them with them rather than being sold to different places far away. I can understand that; there is nothing I wouldn’t do to keep my daughter safe with me in those conditions. Despite Dana’s ability to adapt quickly to her new circumstances, she was not spared from being on the receiving end of some awful abuse, and she lived in constant fear of being sold to a plantation further south that was notorious for its truly brutal conditions. A modern person worrying about being sold – if that doesn’t absolutely horrify you, then you must be part of the problem.

Part of the discussion on adapting is, I think, the ways Dana and the other Black characters view Tom Weylin and Rufus. Tom initially appears to be brutal, every bit the worst of the stereotypical slave owner. As the novel progresses, how he is viewed doesn’t change so much to liking him as to seeing how he is more or less a fair man operating within the social constructs of his time period. He is a hard man and sometimes does cruel things, but he is doing what is allowed for him to do and doesn’t really step out of those bounds, as disgusting as they are to our modern sensibilities. Similarly, with Rufus, he seems to grow up to take after his father in most ways, except that he is in love with Alice, and his father never would have loved a slave. Use her body, yes, but love her, no. Dana is able to forgive Rufus for so many wrongs, and he actually seems to do worse things than his father ever did. He makes overt threats to Dana, lies about sending her letters to Kevin when he got trapped in the past, and is a volatile drunk. His father at least never seemed to let himself get out of control like Rufus does. In many ways, Rufus is a pitiable character, largely lacking in understanding, empathy, or willpower. To be fair, though, I’d probably be blind fucking drunk all the time if I had to live in the South at that time of history. In any case, the way Dana and the other Black characters view the Weylins very much makes me think of Stockholm Syndrome. Maybe they were just as awful as one thinks they were but the effect was lessened over the course of the novel by the psychological impact of being held against their will, malnourished, beaten and whipped, and worked until they dropped.

Normally, I don’t care much for first-person perspective in novels. But I think first-person is the only way this novel could be as powerful as it was. If Dana hadn’t been the narrator, if we had a third-person POV instead, it would have created a distance between the characters, events they went through, and the reader; the situations she went through would not have been as visceral an experience for readers and thus the discussions on various issues would not have been as effective.

The title itself is a stark reminder that being related to a person doesn’t always mean they are your family. There’s a big difference between relatives and family. Rufus and Dana are related to one another. They have a sense of mutual obligation to each other, though an admittedly lop-sided one. But they are in no way family as I would define it. So that makes an interesting contrast throughout the book, especially when you consider Dana and her husband’s relationship, and her relationship with the slaves. She seems much closer to them than to Rufus, her actual relative. Similarly, her marriage to Kevin is illegal in the past and, I would imagine, is seen as at least odd in 1976. I don’t think interracial marriages were very well tolerated at the time. 

In any case, this was a terrific read, if difficult at times because of the things that happened to people. I definitely recommend it to any fans of timeslip, sci-fi, magical realism, or antebellum history. 

Catch-Up Round: Book Club edition

122943In the Country of the Young  by Lisa Carey (WEBSITE, TWITTER, FACEBOOK)

Her Grace’s rating:  4.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: magical realism/ ghost story

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 286 pp

Published by: Perennial (1 Oct 2000)

In the late 1800s during Ireland’s Potato Famine, hundreds of Irish immigrated to America and Canada on ‘famine ships.’ One ship, the Tir na Nog, ran aground off the coast of Maine and most aboard died, including a young girl, Aisling. In modern times, artist Oisin MacDara lives an almost hermit life in the woods of Tiranogue Island. He rarely has any contact with other people and the islanders have come to accept him on his own terms. On Samhain night, Oisin lights a candle and leaves his door open, as tradition dictates, and from the mist comes a girl. Oisin had been able to see ghosts and spirits in his youth, but lost the ability when his twin sister died. In all the years since, Oisin has tried to figure out how to bring his Sight back. Now, it seems he is able to See spirits once more, or at least one spirit, who enters his life on Samhain night.

Carey’s novel is a delight. It is atmospheric and gothic, full of Irish myth and tradition. Readers get a sense of disbelief at first when Aisling wanders in out of the shadows, and, very slowly, come to realise the girl is the same as the one who died on the famine ship. As Aisling’s stay with Oisin becomes longer, she begins to grow at an astronomical rate, catching up to her adult self and gaining the experiences she missed out on in life. Oisin reluctantly takes on the role of provider, by turns pleased for and interested in the companionship and resenting her presence in his quiet, solitary life. With the help of an open-minded and trusting neighbor, Deirdre, Oisin is able to give Aisling a lifetime of experiences in what he knows will be the limited time available to her.

The character development here was extraordinary. I loved seeing Aisling’s growth and how she changed from a scared little girl into a self-confident young woman. Oisin, too, changed and grew to accept love and help from others. I identified with him a lot since I am also a very solitary person and don’t trust easily. 

Various themes of loss, mental illness, sexuality, and inflexible social customs made for some very rich discussion during this particular book club meeting.

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • It’s the same as day turning to night. Your life is like the day, and after death comes, it’s all different – not worse or better, just different – because, as at night, the world no longer looks the same. It’s why twilight is the holy time, when day and night come together, and the living and the dead can meet one another on the road.
  • “It’s wrong to spend your life afraid, Oisin,” she said. “No matter what you see.”
  • What that night became for her was the moment she stepped away from all her definitions and into herself. Suddenly it no longer mattered who she was, only that she was. She stopped editing her thoughts and analyzing her actions. When she looked in the mirror, her brown eyes were tired or angry, often amused, but no longer plain. Beneath the fears and posing, she had been there all along.
  • Doesn’t he know that every minute counts? That waiting is often the same as missing a lifetime?
  • My mom says if you wait for people to read your mind, most of them will hear only your silence. … Which is why I have to tell you something,” Gabe says. … “When I’m old enough to have my first love, I’m going to remember you. Is that okay?”

 

5730888The Unit  by Ninni Holmqvist 

Her Grace’s rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: dystopian 

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 268 pp

Published by: Other Press (9 June 2009)

In this dystopian society, when people reach a certain age (50 for women, 60 for men), and have no family or an irreplaceable skill, they are sent to live in ‘reserve banks’, like retirement homes. It is not optional and everyone goes if they didn’t have children in their life. Dorrit Weger dutifully checks into the Second Reserve Bank Unit on her 50th birthday. From there, she makes new friends among the other residents, engages in experiments with new drugs and therapies, and eventually begins making donations as needed and required to the outside community. She and her fellow residents are there to provide their organs to people who need them and who have been deemed of more value to society. 

This was fascinating, if somewhat derivative of many other dystopian novels. As with many books dealing with the lives of women in the future, this society has decided that people who have never had children are ‘dispensable’ and are therefore a perfect group upon which to experiment with new drugs or psychological therapies, forcing them to donate organs to indispensable recipients until they make their final donation, usually their heart or lungs. It is terrifying because I can see something like this happening. What was the most disturbing of all was how quickly the Unit’s residents accepted their fate and even managed to convince themselves that it was for the good. 

It was also just…sad…since Dorrit only found love for the first time once she entered the Unit and it would necessarily be cut short by the practices they are enduring. While I do NOT think one has to have a great love to have a great life or to be complete, it is sad when someone wants that and only finds it at the end of her life. 

There is a lot of material to unpack about what makes a life or a person worthwhile and fulfilled. Why is having children the be all and end all of a person’s worth? It takes no skill at all to have a baby. I always look side-eye at anyone who says having their children was their greatest accomplishment. Really? I LOVE my child but having her took no particular skill on my part. I’m prouder of the things I’ve written, dragged out of my brain by sheer determination, persistence, and force of will, because those things took a lot of effort. Saying this does not mean I am not proud of my daughter. I am proud – of HER accomplishments and the person she is becoming, not of simply having her. See the difference? And who is to say what I accomplish is somehow more important than, say, my friends who have chosen to remain childless? It’s not like we aren’t overpopulated as it is. Humans are like cockroaches. We’re all over the fucking place. It’s just a scary thing to think that people might one day be valued on their ability to reproduce rather than on their actual ability to contribute. 

This was another excellent book for a book club. There were so many things to consider from ethics, love, the value of a human life, and spirit. We had a very lively discussion for this one!

There were many lines that I highlighted while reading this, but the one below sums up everything perfectly for me:

  • “People who read books,” he went on, “tend to be dispensable. Extremely.”

The Salt Roads

61nvaeyynml._sl500_The Salt Roads* by Nalo Hopkinson

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Bahni Turpin

Source: my own collection

Length: 13:15:00

Publisher: Tantor Audio

Year: 2003

This is the story of a fertility goddess, Ezilie, sometimes called Lasiren, and the women whose bodies she possesses. The main point of view characters are Mer, a healer and slave on a plantation on the island of St. Domingue, what is now Haiti; Jeanne Duval, the Haitian mistress of Charles Baudelaire; and Thais or Meritet, a Nubian slave and prostitute in Alexandria, Egypt, who later becomes known as Mary of Egypt. In nonlinear timelines, the narrative follows the lives of these women as Lasiren inhabits and influences them. Mer is tasked with clearing the salt roads, the connections between Haitian slaves and their African gods. She tries to do so through peaceful means, even though a violent rebel called Makandal is rising in power and urging slaves to revolt against white slave owners. Mer knows her duty is to heal all the Ginen people. Jeanne Duval’s narrative focuses more on economic freedom. She is trying to support herself and her mother, who is ill and can’t afford medicine. To do so, she becomes a stage dancer in hopes of catching the eye of a rich man who will take her as his mistress and set her up in comfort so she can care for herself and her mother. Thais’s story comes pretty late in the book overall, but I think it can represent freedom from sexual slavery, since she was a prostitute and relied on that for survival before Lasiren began interacting with her, driving her to wander the desert. Her interactions with Lasiren eventually resulted in her sainthood.

At first, I admit I didn’t quite get this story. I really enjoyed it, but it took a few days of really thinking about it for me to find the threads that bound it together. I really love that, when a story makes me think and I don’t get it right away. Maybe I still don’t have it right, but this is what I’ve come up with. The various forms of freedom are, I believe, the overarching theme. The salt is the common element which binds women around the world together, through blood, sweat, tears, birth fluids, and sex.

I really enjoyed the way the lives of these women were linked throughout the story. They were so very different, but they each had their own struggles for freedom which bound them together, and Lasiren teased out their desires and eventually managed to bring comfort to them all, even if it was a long time coming.

Each setting was vivid and complex, containing rich cultural details. I hadn’t known, for example, that Makandal was a real man and that he did actually instigate a rebellion on St. Domingue. I learned as well that the Ginen is the Haitian name for the ancestral home of enslaved Africans, and that it referred to the slaves on St. Domingue. I didn’t know that Charles Baudelaire had a Haitian mistress. I had never heard of Mary of Egypt. Now I have so many new things to read about in more depth because of this book!

The narrator, Bahni Turpin, did a stellar job, as she always does. Her accents really bring the characters to life and she dramatizes the story without being melodramatic. She is one of my favorite narrators.

This is definitely one of the most unique books I’ve read ever, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I highly recommend it and am looking forward to reading more by Nalo Hopkinson.

 

*Amazon affiliate link.

Children of Earth and Sky

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Cover image from Children of Earth and Sky

I’m a big fan of magical realism and what I call near-fantasy, where things are familiar and close but just different enough to make you remember you aren’t actually in your own world. Guy Gavriel Kay is a master of creating this type of world (as are Neil Gaiman and Kelly Link). His newest novel, Children of Earth and Sky, is another example of his creative skill and delightful storytelling ability.

This book creates such a lovely, rich world full of complex and interesting people. Kay’s main characters in this novel are fascinating and multifaceted. He has a wonderful ability to make you get attached to them quickly, which isn’t always a good thing when some of them die right away. Only it is, because it’s awesome when a book gives you the feels right away and DOESN’T FREAKING STOP. The characters are all well rounded and interesting throughout, even the minor characters. You can’t help but care about them, even ones you don’t think you want to care about. Danica, Marin, Pero, Leonora, Neven, they are all vibrant and living people, each with their own path to take, and I genuinely cared about each of them every step of the way.

Kay gives a tale of a quasi-Renaissance Europe that is rife with political turmoil and intrigue, complete with his usual flair for weaving in elements of magical realism. The world he creates is just on the edge of recognition, which I absolutely love about all of his works that I’ve read. I always get the feeling that I’ve been there or studied this in history before, but then he pulls a literary stunt to remind me that I’m actually reading a really well crafted fantasy, like a dead relative cohabiting in someone else’s mind with them. This was the perfect escapism fantasy for me. I want to reread all of Kay’s other novels now!